Sheila Rowbotham, Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers, and Radicals in Britain and the United States

(London: Verso, 2016), 502 pp., $34.95.

Rebels with Many Causes

I first heard the name Helena Born in a graduate course taught by the historian of anarchism Paul Avrich. A neglected figure in both British and American radical history, Born was etched in my mind, not so much for her supporting and organizing of workers in 1880s Bristol, but for her trans-Atlantic crossing to join a group of Walt Whitman devotees in Boston. Sheila Rowbotham’s impressive and expansive Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers, and Radicals in Britain and the United States gives life and dimension to Helena Born as well as five other fellow travellers: Miriam Daniell, Gertrude Dix, Robert Nicol, William Bailie and Helen Tufts, whose compelling stories are entwined with Born’s.

It is not surprising that Rowbotham, who published an award-winning biography of the English socialist Edward Carpenter in 2008, would find Helena Born a sympathetic subject. Carpenter, whose “socialism was about changing personal life as well as society” (1), was influential in shaping Born and her compatriots’ thinking. Indeed, Born, Daniell and Nicol appear to have consulted Carpenter’s Towards Democracy as regularly as they did Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. As with her early feminist studies Hidden from History, and Women, Resistance and Revolution, in Rebel Crossings, Rowbotham examines how distinct ordinary groups of individuals worked to create gender equality and re-imagine a world that would accommodate women’s particular wants and needs. In Rebel Crossings, she has produced a fascinating group portrait of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century radical culture through its subjects’ campaigns for social democracy, women’s rights, and trade unionism, as well as their desire to transform the personal aspects of everyday life in love, attire, eating habits, family arrangements and so on.

Through meticulous research in diaries, scrapbooks, newspapers, census reports, letters, and the subjects’ published writings, Rowbotham has succeeded in the daunting task of making sense of lives lived in the gaps of history. She begins in Britain, in Bristol to be exact, where Born and Daniell form their radical female friendship and become active campaigners. Later Nicol joins them. There are side trips to London, Manchester and Edinburgh, and finally to Massachusetts and California. In each location, Rowbotham examines her subjects’ social activism as it was nurtured by nineteenth- century progressivism: the dissenting churches, social clubs, lecture circuits, labor unions, strike committees, which sustained these young rebels and taught them to keep questioning and redefining their radical world view.

Well-known socialists such as Carpenter, Eleanor Marx, William Morris, George Bernard Shaw and Annie Besant surface in the text, but the strength of Rebel Crossings is in its author’s commitment to tell trans-national radical history through these not widely known, understudied voices. The examples of Born, Daniell, and Nicol’s social and political rebellion also provide new insights into radicalism’s varieties and margins. The Bristol Socialist Society, the Walt Whitman Fellowship, A.J. Lloyd’s “Comradeship of Free Socialists,” and Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty newspaper are but a few free-thought outlets surveyed in Rebel Crossings. Indeed, Rowbotham pays particular attention to Born, Daniell, Nicol and Bailie’s developing interest in Individualist Anarchism through their association with Tucker and the poems and editorials they published in Liberty. Rowbotham also emphasizes Born’s feminist take on Individualist Anarchism as Born takes up cycling – and the new “bloomer” fashion it necessitated – as well as sea-bathing and creating a “Pure Food Kitchen.”

The six individuals profiled in Rebel Crossings are an intriguing study in contrasts. Indeed, Rowbotham presents them as if they were characters in a novel, using their first names, and imaginatively offering conjecture to fill in the spaces where the research has come up empty. Helena is plain and retiring, but an undisputed rebel—particularly against marriage, an institution she steadfastly avoided as she pursued strong companionship and comradeship with both women and men. Miriam is engaging and energetic. A daring nature enabled her to walk out on an unhappy marriage for the uncertainty of life with the Scottish medical student Robert – first in an Edinburgh slum, and later in Boston and California. William, the Irish Protestant autodidact, took up basket weaving, and moved his family to Boston for a new basket workshop, while writing editorials for Liberty. The new woman novelist, Gertrude Dix, lived “on the cusp of many [Liberal and Socialist] causes” (297). Indeed, Dix may be the hardest of these rebels to grasp; her epistolary romance with Nicol compelled a move to California, where she remade herself into a writer of westerns. The youngest of the group is the American Helen Tufts. Her membership in the Boston Whitman Fellowship brought her close to Helena Born, and to chronicling the thoughts and actions of their lives in her journal. In fact, it was she who put together the posthumous collection of Born’s essays Whitman’s Ideal Democracy, which Rowbotham first discovered in the British Library back in the 1970s.

Reading through Rebel Crossings will no doubt remind a few readers of 1960s-style countercultural idealism and its aftermath. For example, Born, Daniell and Nicol set up a cooperative-type housing arrangement first in Boston, and later, on a California ranch (which burns down and sends Helena back east again). Daniell and Nicol’s free union produces a daughter, who is aptly named “Sunrise.” Back in Boston, Born sets up another cooperative-style arrangement with her married lover, William Bailie, and her young disciple Helen Tufts. Their “Pure Food Kitchen,” which eventually failed (impoverished patrons were stealing the crockery), prefigured countercultural experiments with vegetarian diets and food cooperatives. Just as those politically inclined members of the1960s’ counterculture embraced political collectives, these nonconformists imagined the Liberty magazine headquarters and the Walt Whitman Fellowship as similarly collective endeavors. Additionally, in their desire for simplicity in everyday life, as well as their admiration for Thoreau and Walden Pond, they anticipated “deep ecology” and other late twentieth-century environmental movements.

While there is much to praise about these six radicals, Rowbotham neither romanticizes nor judges her subjects; instead she presents their lives in flux, so readers might see the complexities and contradictions of trying to live out freedoms at a time when strict social and class conventions circumscribed individual desires and movement. Indeed, for all these rebels’ idealisms, they are dogged by their own sets of prejudices; Rowbotham carefully underscores them in the cases of Miriam, Robert and Helen. She alerts us to Miriam’s “horror” at the sight of Chinese workers, which seemed in direct opposition to her otherwise empathetic temperament. Robert’s extreme stances included a devoted socialism as well as a harsh xenophobia regarding San Francisco’s non-white immigrants. Helen’s radicalism played tug of war with a Bostonian elitism that found her retreating in the presence of esteemed abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Overall, Rebel Crossings draws important attention to dichotomies and divisions within the Left at that time, as well as the racism and anti-Semitism prevalent among reform-minded Anglo-Americans.

Rowbotham claims in her book’s introduction, that her goal in writing it was “subversion sustained by humour and enjoyment” (7). Like the best fiction, it is the sweeping narrative of sympathetic characters and noble acts that makes us want to keep on reading. Rebel Crossings is epic-like in its intimate portrait of individuals who went against the grain of their times, crossing oceans and continents in search of freedom and a world they hoped to remake. In fact, Rowbotham does an act of altruism by calling our attention to these six rebels, for we twenty-first-century readers need all the reminders of daring idealism that we can get.

Reviewed by Nancy Berke, Ph.D.
English Department
LaGuardia College, City University of New York

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